The 17th objective of the United Nations’ Division for Sustainable Development Goals is to create and strengthen global partnerships between diverse organizations to achieve the UN’s 2030 Agenda—and religious groups have found a prominent place among potential allies for sustainable development and environmental action. The United Nations Environment Programme, also known as UN Environment, estimates that 80% of the world’s population is affiliated with a faith and reports that faith leaders’ voices are uniquely respected in their communities.
Because building trusted relationships with diverse faiths takes careful effort, the UN has dedicated specific programs to the aim of growing those relationships. In 2017, for example, UN Environment founded the Faith for Earth Initiative in conjunction with 20 faith organizations representing eight major religious bodies, with the aim of promoting environmental action as well as investing for environmental impact.
New Momentum for Faith-Based Action
UN Environment has worked with faith groups in the past, including through the Interfaith Partnership for the Environment, which launched in 1986 and has mostly focused its attention on North America. But as climate experts warn that time is running out to avert the most serious effects of climate change, the UN has extended its initiatives to incorporate global cooperation and the inclusion of many faiths.
Pope Francis underscored the potential for religious action on the environment with his encyclical Laudato si’, and in his 2015 address to the UN he declared the “sacredness of created nature.” And more recently, Faith for Earth has shaped its agenda around the Sustainable Development Goals, with its founding participants identifying climate change, water pollution, and resource efficiency among their top concerns.
Forging Partnerships for Environmental Goals
Faith for Earth pursues three main areas of progress with its partner organizations:
- Cultivate community outreach. Faith leaders have a unique platform for speaking out about environmental issues in their communities. They can advocate for sustainable actions among their congregants, including using natural resources responsibly and becoming more aware of trends, like climate change, that they believe threaten the planet’s future. The Faith for Earth Initiative hopes to promote a dialogue of sustainability between faith leaders and their organizations, a dialogue that helps draw connections between religious precepts and actions that benefit the environment.
- Support strong investments. Many faith groups are already familiar with negative investment screening and have taken steps to divest from oil and gas companies or from other major producers of greenhouse gas emissions. The Faith for Earth Initiative emphasizes the positive selection of investments, such as renewable energy and conservation projects, that bring society closer to sustainability. Religious groups are estimated to be the fourth-largest group of investors in the world, according to UN Environment; if they all leverage their funds to support environmental goals, they could create a large impact.
- Prioritize education. Typically, clergy members are not the target audience of scientific research, and they may be overlooked in efforts to raise awareness of environmental issues. The Faith for Earth Initiative intends to bridge the gap between scientists and faith communities, ensuring that faith leaders have access to up-to-date information on the environment that they can communicate to their adherents.
Although the Faith for Earth Initiative was founded only recently, it has already begun the work of establishing a dialogue with 400 religious organizations around the globe. Looking to the future, it plans to continue to seek feedback from religious leaders on their environmental concerns and ideas for local action. By collaborating with representatives of faiths with which so many people identify, the Faith for Earth Initiative has the potential to unite people and achieve more than any individual organization could accomplish working alone.